Saturday, January 17, 2009

Israel faces questions of war crimes in Gaza

A Palestinian carries his belongings near his destroyed house after an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip January 9, 2009.
REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Steven Erlanger
Published: January 17, 2009
International Herald Tribune

Your unit, on the edges of Jabaliya, has taken mortar fire from the crowded refugee camp nearby. You plot the launch and go to return fire, and perhaps you notice - or perhaps you don't, even though it's on your map - that there is a United Nations school just there, full of internally displaced Gazans. You know that international law allows you to protect your soldiers and return fire, but also demands that you ensure that there is no excessive harm to civilians. Do you remember all that in the panic?

You pick GPS-guided mortars, which are supposed to be accurate and of a specific explosive force, and fire back. In the end, you kill some of the Hamas fighters, but also, the United Nations says, more than 40 civilians, some of them children. Have you committed a war crime?

Whatever the military and political results of Israel's three-week-old war against Hamas in Gaza, Israel is again facing serious accusations and anguished questioning over the legality of its military conduct. As in Israel's 2006 war against Hezbollah, the perception abroad of how Israel fights, and hence of Israelis, may prove to be more lasting than any strategic gains or losses.

The photographs of devastation in crowded Gaza and the large asymmetry in deaths, especially of civilians, have created an uproar in the Arab world and the West reminiscent of 2006.

A plethora of Western foreign ministers, United Nations officials and human rights groups, both Israeli and foreign, have expressed shock and disgust. Human Rights Watch and Israel's B'Tselem have called for investigations into possible war crimes. Such groups also say Hamas is clearly violating the rules of war.
More than 1,100 Palestinians have died in Gaza, the Hamas-run Ministry of Health says, which estimates that 40 percent were women and children under 18. Israel contends that only a quarter of the dead were civilians. Israel, which has suffered 13 dead, 3 of them civilians, has been accused of a disproportionate use of force.

Death tolls in warfare may carry a moral weight, but not a legal one.
Full article is here

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